In it for the long haul

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A tundra swan and cygnet swim in one of the Prudhoe Bay study plots. Photo K. Scheimreif.

WCS and BP Exploration (Alaska), Inc. have been working together since 2003 to monitor nesting birds in the Prudhoe Bay area. Each year WCS field researchers head up the Haul Road from Fairbanks on the long drive to Prudhoe, stopping on the way to look for rare or unusual birds such as bluethroats or Arctic warblers. Getting there is part of the adventure.

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Dryas flowers bloom on raised ground in one of the drier plots at Prudhoe Bay. Many of the study plots are inundated with water in spring and into summer. Snow and water cover is a parameter measured by the long-term nest monitoring study. Photo K. Scheimreif.

Researchers spend June and July working in 12 plots established in 2003, searching for  nests of shorebirds, songbirds, and waterfowl. Nests are marked and monitored throughout the season and the “nest fate” is determined. After birds are no longer observed at the nest, observers search the nest cup and surrounding area for clues of either hatching or depredation. These clues include the presence of broken egg shells, egg membranes and egg teeth left after a successful hatch, and occasionally predator tracks. In addition, researchers conduct predator counts, snow and water surveys, lemming surveys, and keep track of each species seen on each day throughout the field season. All of this in exactly the same locations as in previous years, using the same protocols.

The value of long-term data sets with consistent protocols like these cannot be over-emphasized. They provide a way to quantify ecological responses to a changing environment, data for understanding ecosystem processes that occur over long periods of time, and information useful to land managers (including industry operators) for policy development and decision making (Lindenmayer, et al. 2012). Oftentimes data sets such as these reveal additional information of an entirely different ilk, valuable for other reasons than that for which they were originally intended.

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Peter Detwiler measures the length of a shorebird egg before replacing it in the nest. Photo K. Scheimreif.

Literature cited:

LINDENMAYER, D. B., LIKENS, G. E., ANDERSEN, A., BOWMAN, D., BULL, C. M., BURNS, E., DICKMAN, C. R., HOFFMANN, A. A., KEITH, D. A., LIDDELL, M. J., LOWE, A. J., METCALFE, D. J., PHINN, S. R., RUSSELL-SMITH, J., THURGATE, N. and WARDLE, G. M. (2012). Value of long-term ecological studies. Austral Ecology, 37: 745–757. doi:10.1111/j.1442-9993.2011.02351.x

Long-term Nest Monitoring at Prudhoe Bay

This year, 2015, marks the 13th season of our long-term nest monitoring project on the North Slope, and it started out hot and fast. Due to unusually warm weather in late May, snow had all but melted upon our arrival in Prudhoe Bay, and many birds were already incubating nests.

Working within the oilfields has given WCS an opportunity to monitor large areas of tundra at the unique intersection of wildlife and industry. Photo Zak Pohlen

Working within the oilfields has given WCS an opportunity to monitor large areas of tundra at the unique intersection of wildlife and industry. Photo Zak Pohlen

Through a series of rope-dragging and behavioral observations, our two-person crew captured the ephemeral breeding season of the many shorebird, waterfowl, and passerine species that breed on the North Slope. Each year crews thoroughly cover a total of 120 hectares of tundra to assess initiation dates and success of tundra nesting birds.

Here, Callie Gesmundo is dragging a rope to flush birds off of their nets. This proved to be the best method for finding many species that are reluctant to flush until an observer, or rope, is nearly on top of them. Unfortunately, dragging a 50m long rope over tussocks, polygon rims, and willow shrub is both a physically and mentally demanding exercise!

Here, Callie Gesmundo is dragging a rope to flush birds off of their nets. This proved to be the best method for finding many species that are reluctant to flush until an observer, or rope, is nearly on top of them. Unfortunately, dragging a 50m long rope over tussocks, polygon rims, and willow shrub is both a physically and mentally demanding exercise!

Clear sunny days and record high temperatures defined the first half of the season. Nearly all of our nest searching occurred in June, and almost 50% of the nests hatched in June as well. July followed with much cooler temperatures and we spent the majority of our time determining nest fate. This year, within our long-term study plots, we found a total of 123 nests of 13 different species. Pectoral Sandpipers were the most abundant nests found, followed closely by Lapland Longspurs and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Semipalmated Sandpiper chick Photo Zak Pohlen

Semipalmated Sandpiper chick Photo Zak Pohlen

Determining the fate of each nest is an important aspect of the project, and often much harder than simply finding the chicks in the nest bowl! Nest visits after the chicks have left the bowl are an unfortunate occurrence, and other means must be used to determine the fate of the nest. Eggshell tops and bottoms nearby or small eggshell fragments within the bowl are good indicators of a successful nest.

A hatching Stilt Sandpiper nest. Photo Z. Pohlen

A hatching Stilt Sandpiper nest. Photo Z. Pohlen

With this season in the books, we look forward to the insights gained from another year of this long-term study.

Lapland Longspurs are the only passerine that we found nesting on plot, and the only species with altricial young. The constant feeding from both parents is often an easy way to find their nests after the eggs have hatched. Photo Zak Pohlen

Lapland Longspurs are the only passerine that we found nesting on plot, and the only species with altricial young. The constant feeding from both parents is often an easy way to find their nests after the eggs have hatched. Photo Zak Pohlen

Arctic Shorebird Research and Conservation

On the North Slope of Alaska, at Prudhoe Bay and Ikpikpuk River, and in northern Chukotka at Chaun River Delta and Belyaka Spit, we are engaged in a project to assess adult survivorship of key shorebird species including the Semipalmated Sandpiper and Dunlin, as part of an Arctic-wide project to better understand population trends and migratory pathways of shorebirds species of conservation concern.

Male dunlin on the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Photo by Zak Pohlen.

Male dunlin on the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Photo by Zak Pohlen.

In 2014, we recovered about 20 geolocators from dunlin released at our Russian field camps during the prior two years. These geolocators, which establish a bird’s position based on light and time, now give us a much more detailed view of how these birds travel to their wintering grounds where we are concerned about habitat modification and hunting pressure.

Migratory pathway of a dunlin tagged with a geolocator at the Chaun Delta, Chukotka.

Migratory pathway of a dunlin tagged with a geolocator at Belyaka Spit, Chukotka that was recovered two years after its initial release.

Our work with dunlin is also informing our conservation planning for spoon-billed sandpipers which are now one of the world’s most critically endangered bird species.

Spoon-billed sandpiper  at Belyaka Spit.

Spoon-billed sandpiper at Belyaka Spit